Authors: A.M. Homes
A Collection of Stories
In Memory of Robert S. Jones
I am walking, holding a small screen, watching the green dot move like the blip of a plane, the blink of a ship’s radar. Searching. I am on the lookout for submarines. I am an air traffic controller trying to keep everything at the right distance. I am lost.
A man steps out of the darkness onto the sidewalk. “Plane gone down?” he asks.
It is nearly night; the sky is still blue at the top, but it is dark down here.
“I was just walking the dog,” he says.
I nod. The dog is nowhere to be seen.
“You’re not from around here are you?”
“Not originally,” I say. “But we’re over on Maple now.”
“Tierney,” the man says. “John Tierney.”
“Harris,” I say. “Geordie Harris.”
“Welcome to the neighborhood. Welcome to town.”
He points to my screen; the dot seems to have stopped traveling.
“I was hoping to hell that was a toy—a remote control,” he says. “I was hoping to have some fun. Are you driving a car or floating a boat somewhere around here?”
“It’s a chip,” I say, cutting him off. “A global positioning screen. I’m looking for my mother-in-law.”
There is a scratching sound from inside a nearby privet, and the unmistakable scent of dog shit rises like smoke.
“Good boy,” Tierney says. “He doesn’t like to do his business in public. Can’t blame him—if they had me shitting outside, I’d hide in the bushes too.”
Tierney—I hear it like
Tyrant, teaser, taunting me about my tracking system, my lost mother-in-law.
“It’s not a game,” I say, looking down at the blinking green dot.
A yellow Lab pushes out of the bushes and Tierney clips the leash back onto his collar. “Let’s go, boy,” Tierney says, slapping the side of his leg. “Good luck,” he calls, pulling the dog down the road.
The cell phone clipped to my belt rings. “Who was that?” Susan asks. “Was that someone you know?”
‘It was a stranger, a total stranger, looking for a playmate.” I glance down at the screen. “She doesn’t seem to be moving now.”
“Is your antenna up?” Susan asks.
There is a pause. I hear her talking to Kate. “See Daddy. See Daddy across the street, wave to Daddy. Kate’s waving,” she tells me. I stare across the road at the black Volvo idling by the curb. With my free hand I wave back.
“That’s Daddy,” Susan says, handing Kate the phone.
“What are you doing, Daddy?” Kate asks. Her intonation, her annoyance, oddly accusatory for a three-year-old.
“I’m looking for Grandma.”
“Me too,” Kate giggles.
“Give the phone to Mommy.”
“I don’t think so,” Kate says.
“What’s new?” Kate says—it’s her latest phrase.
“Bye-bye,” I say, hanging up on her.
I step off the sidewalk and dart between the houses, through the grass alley that separates one man’s yard from another’s. A sneak, a thief, a prowling trespasser, I pull my flashlight out of my jacket and flick it on. The narrow Ever-`
Ready beam catches patios and planters and picnic tables by surprise. I am afraid to call out, to attract attention. Ahead of me there is a basketball court, a slide, a sandbox, and there she is, sailing through my beam like an apparition. Her black hair blowing, her hands smoothly clutching the chain-link ropes of the swing as though they were reins. I catch her in mid-flight. Legs swinging in and out. I hold the light on her—there and gone.
“I’m flying,” she says, sailing through the night.
I step in close so that she has to stop swinging. “Did you have a pleasant flight, Mrs. Ha?”
“It was nice.”
“Was there a movie?”
She eases herself off the swing and looks at me like I’m crazy. She looks down at the tracking device. “It’s no game,” Mrs. Ha says, putting her arm through mine. I lead her back through the woods. “What’s for dinner, Georgie?” she says. And I hear the invisible echo of Susan’s voice correcting—it’s not Georgie, it’s Geordie.
“What would you like, Mrs. Ha?”
In the distance, a fat man presses against a sliding glass door, looking out at us, his breath fogging the pane.
Susan is at the computer, drawing. She is making a map, a grid of the neighborhood. She is giving us something to go on in the future—coordinates.
She is an architect, everything is line, everything is order. Our house is G4. The blue light of the screen pours over her, pressing the flat planes of her face flatter still—illuminating. She hovers in an eerie blue glow.
“I called Ken,” I say.
Ken is the one who had the chip put in. He is Susan’s brother. When Mrs. Ha was sedated for a colonoscopy, Ken had the chip implanted at the bottom of her neck, above her shoulder blades. The chip company specialist came and stood
by while a plastic surgeon inserted it just under the skin. Before they let her go home, they tested it by wheeling her gurney all over the hospital while Ken sat in the waiting room tracking her on the small screen.
“I called him about her memory. I was wondering if we should increase her medication.”
Ken is a psychopharmacologist, a specialist in the containment of feeling. He used to be a stoner and now he is a shrink. He has no affect, no emotions.
“And?” she says.
“He asked if she seemed agitated.”
“She seems perfectly happy,” Susan says.
“I know,” I say, not telling Susan what I told Ken—Susan is the one who’s agitated.
“Does she know where she is?” Ken had asked. There had been a pause, a moment where I wondered if he was asking about Susan or his mother. “I’m not always sure,” I’d said, failing to differentiate.
“Well, what did he say?” Susan wants to know.
“He said we could try upping the dose—no harm in trying. He said it’s not unusual for old people to wander off at twilight, to forget where they are. He said there are all kinds of phenomena that no one really understands.”
“You haven’t ever called my brother before, have you?” Susan asks.
“I have not, no.”
Mrs. Ha has only been with us for three weeks. Before that, she was in her own apartment in California, slowly evaporating. It was a fall that brought her to the hospital, a phone call to Ken, a series of tests, the chip implant, and then Ken put her on a plane to us—with a pair of tracking devices packed in her suitcase. When she arrived I drove her around the neighborhood, I showed her where the stores were, the library, post office, and the train station. I don’t tell Susan
that now I live in fear Mrs. Ha will find the station herself, that she’ll hop on a train—and the mother hunt will become an FBI investigation. We have only been here ourselves for five months, before that we were on 106th and Riverside, and most mornings when I wake up I still have no idea where I am.
“I don’t like coming home any more,” Susan says, turning to face me, the light from the computer an iMac aura around her head. “It scares me. I never know what to expect.” She pauses. “I can’t do it.”
“You can do it,” I say, plucking a fragment from my childhood, the memory of Shari Lewis telling Lamb Chop, “You can do anything.”
There is nothing Susan likes less than to fail. She will do anything not to fail; she will not try so as not to fail.
Susan is reading. She turns the pages of her book, neatly, tightly, they almost click as they flip. “Listen to this,” she says, quoting a passage from
In Cold Blood.
“‘Isn’t it wonderful, Kansas is so American.’”
When I told my family about Susan, they said, “She doesn’t sound Chinese.”
“An architect named Susan from Yale who grew up in LaJolla—that’s not Chinese,” my mother said.
“But she is Chinese,” I repeated.
And later when I told Susan the story she said angrily, “I’m not Chinese, I’m American.”
Susan is minimal, flat, like Kansas. She is physically nonexistent, a plank of wood, planed, smooth. There is nothing to curl around, nothing to hold on to. Her design signature is a thin ledge, floating on a wall, a small trough wide enough to want to rest something on, too narrow to hold anything.
I drape my arm over her, it lies across her body like dead weight. Her exhalations blow the little hairs on my arm like a warm wind.
“You’re squishing me,” she says, pushing my arm away. She turns the page—click.
“When she dies do they take the chip out?” Susan asks, hooking me with her leg, pulling me back.
“I assume they just deactivate it and you give them back the tracker—it’s leased.”
“Should we have one put in Kate?”
“Let’s see how it goes with your mother. No one knows if there are side effects, weird electromagnetic pulls toward outer space from being tracked, traced as you walk along the earth.”
“Where did you find her tonight?” she asks as we are falling asleep. We sleep like plywood, pressed together—two straight lines.
“On a swing. How can you be angry with an old woman on a swing?”
“She’s my mother.”
In the morning Mrs. Ha is in the front yard. She is playing a Jimi Hendrix tape she brought with her on our boom box: she is a tree, a rock, a cloud. She is shifting slowly between poses, holding them, and then morphing into the next.
“T’ai chi,” Susan says.
“I didn’t know people really did that.”
“They all do it,” Susan says, glaring at me. “Even I can do it.” She takes a couple of poses, the first like a vulture about to attack, her fingers suddenly talons, and then she is a dragon, hissing.
When Susan and I met there was a gap between us, a neutral space. I saw it as an acknowledgment of the unbridgeable, not just male and female, but unfamiliar worlds—we couldn’t pretend to understand each other.
I look back out the window. Kate is there now, standing next to Mrs. Ha, doing her kung fu imitation chop-chops. Kate punches the air, she kicks. She has nothing on under her dress.
“Kate needs underpants,” I tell Susan, who runs, horrified, down the stairs, shooing the two of them into the backyard.
For a moment the boom box is alone on the grass—Jimi Hendrix wailing “And the wind cries Mary,” at 8:28
I see Sherika, the nanny, coming up the sidewalk. Sherika takes the train from Queens every morning. “I could never live here,” she told us the day we moved in. “I have to be around people.” Sherika is a single ebony stick almost six feet tall. She moves like a gazelle, like she is gliding toward the house. In Uganda, where she grew up, her family is part of the royal family—she may even be a princess.
I go downstairs and open the door for her. My top half is dressed in shirt and tie, my bottom half still pajamaed.
“How are you doing this morning?” she asks, her intonation so melodious, each word so evenly enunciated that just the sound of her voice is a comfort.
“I’m fine, and you?”
“Good. Very good,” she says. “Where are my ladies?”
“In the backyard, warming up.” I am still standing in the hall. “What does the name Sherika mean?” I’m thinking it’s something tribal, something mystical. I picture a tall bird with thin legs and an unusual sound.
“I have no idea,” she says. “It’s just what my auntie in Brooklyn calls me. My true name is Christine.” She smiles. “Today, I am going to take my ladies to the library and then maybe I’ll take my ladies out to lunch.”
I find my wallet on the table and hand Christine forty dollars. “Take them to lunch,” I say. “That would be nice.”
“Thank you,” she says, putting the money in her pocket.
Susan and I walk ourselves to the train, leaving the car for Sherika-Christine.
“Fall is here, clocks go back tomorrow, we can rake leaves this weekend,” I say as we head down the sidewalk. It is my fantasy to spend Saturday in the yard, raking. “We have to give it a year.”
“And then what—put her in a home?”
“I’m talking about the house—we have to give ourselves a
year to get used to the house.” There is a pause, a giant black crow takes flight in front of us. “We need shades in the bedroom, the upstairs bathroom needs to be regrouted, it’s all starting to annoy me.”
“It can’t be perfect.”
Sitting next to Susan on the train, I feel like I’m a foreigner, not just a person from another country but a person from another planet, a person without customs, ways of being, a person who has blank spots rather than bad habits. I am thinking about Susan, about what it means to be married to someone I know nothing about.
“It’s exhausting,” I say, “all this back and forth.”
“It’s eighteen minutes longer than coming down from 106th Street.”
“It feels farther.”
“It is farther,” she says, “but you’re moving faster.” She turns the page.
“Do you ever wonder what I’m thinking?”
“I know what you’re thinking, you confess every thought.”
“Not every thought.”
“Ninety-nine percent,” she says.
“Does that bother you?”
“No,” she says. “Everything is not so important, everything is not earth-shattering, despite what you think.”
I am silenced.
We arrive at Grand Central. Susan puts her book in her bag and is off the train. “Call me,” I say. Every morning when we separate there is a moment when I think I will never see her again. She disappears into the crowd, and I think that’s it, it’s over, that’s all there was.
Twenty minutes later, I call her at the office—“Just making sure you got there OK.”
“I’m here,” she says.
“I want something,” I confess.
“What do you want?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “More. I want more of something.”
Connection, I am thinking. I want connection.
“You want something I don’t have,” she says.
I am at my desk, drifting, remembering the summer my parents divorced and my bar mitzvah was canceled due to lack of interest on all sides.
“I just can’t imagine doing it,” my mother said. “I can’t imagine doing anything with your father, can you? I think it would be very uncomfortable.”
My father gave me $5,000 to “make up the difference,” then asked, “Is that enough?” I spent my thirteenth birthday with him in a New York hotel room, eating ice-cream cake from 31 Flavors with a woman whose name my father couldn’t remember. “Tell my friend about school, tell my friend what you do for fun, tell my friend all about yourself,” he kept saying, and all I wanted to do was scream—What the fuck is your friend’s name?